We hear a lot these days about boundary-stretching, interdisciplinary art. But how many artists can you name who have created a cohesive and materially rich oeuvre out of diverse interests and practices? Among those who do, Gyöngy Laky, 68, ranks high.
With precisely engineered sculptures built of twigs, branches, toy figures and hardware that spell out words, phrases and symbols, Laky makes art that reflects her interest in architecture, design, geopolitics, eco-activism, language and nature. She is that rare artist who is both a simplifier and a complicator, and her ability to play with colliding opposites gives her art a biting, critical edge: equal parts Giuseppe Penone, Charles Arnoldi, Barbara Kruger and M.C. Escher.
The text portions of her works (and their accompanying titles) encourage quick reads; but the fractured armatures that undergird them, made of geometrically arrayed wood fragments, do the opposite: they transform words (“Yes”, “Blur” “Move”, “If”) and symbols (question marks and currency signs) into phenomenological puzzles. This strategy, of grabbing attention with one thing and redirecting it with another, yields strong conceptual works that range from clever and cannily topical to oblique and entrancing.
Ghosting Along, a healthcare protest, uses a crutch embedded in wood scraps to form a dollar sign. Choking Hazard, a question mark made of plastic soldiers, turns a parental advisory into a visceral anti-war statement. Why, a question mark with devil horns built of red-painted wood and plastic soldiers, does the same. Such works show the artist in activist mode, leveraging craft and language to drive home a point.
More provocative still are works in which Laky explores the linguistic and associative possibilities that can be wrung from nature-made detritus. She collects garden, orchard and park trimmings and arrays them in grids to form symbolic systems that hint at hieroglyphs, ideographs, pictographs and calligraphy. The shapes portend deep meaning, but reveal only riddles; yet their evocations of sign language and cryptic alphabets are so powerful, it’s hard to imagine that there isn’t a concrete link between human writing and the “language” of trees. Appropriated by the artist and displayed in wall-mounted sculptures (Writing on the Wall and Notes to Self), these painted, chiseled tree parts — juxtaposed as if in dialog — underscore yet another important point: that when it comes to drawing nature does it best.
Laky’s appropriations began early. She emigrated to the U.S. from war-torn Hungary with her family when she was five and, en route, became fluent in several languages. Travel gave her a working knowledge of many more, plus an appreciation of vernacular architecture and the economies of developing nations. Her opposition to war, already established, hit full stride during the ‘60s while studying at U.C. Berkeley; and her equally strong commitment to sustainability blossomed when she helped launch the Environmental Design department at UC Davis, where she taught from 1978 to 2005.
Accordingly, the eternal tug-o-war between nature and culture permeates her art. Field Notes, a vessel made of branches and protruding nails, mixes beauty and belligerence. Like a tribal fetish object it practically shouts “Approach with caution.” Natura Facit Saltum, an Yves Klein blue vessel whose title references Darwin's notion of gradual evolution, consists of an outward-facing bundle of gnarled branches whose interior is a smooth sea of burnished red circles: an op-ish balance of chaos and order.
Not everything fares so well. The series that places 3-D works against photographs feels like an experiment in progress. No matter. If you’re susceptible to high-level wordplay, you’ll leave here buoyed by the force of a visual thinker and linguist whose creations honor the strength, fragility and culpability of the human enterprise.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Gyöngy Laky: “Marks of Narration” @ b. sakata garo through September 29, 2012.